Recent headlines paint a grim picture of the UK’s social standards. Income inequality is at its widest since the mid-1980s, one in five people live in poverty, child homelessness is at a 10-year high and food bank use is an alarming 20 times higher than it was in 2010.
This is the mood music to which the Prime Minister announced her vision of the future – that leaving the European Union will create a ‘stronger, fairer and more prosperous future for us all’. However, there’s one issue she’s so far conveniently failed to mention. Leaving the EU will cut the UK off from an assortment of funding pots that are earmarked to reduce this social and economic inequality.
As a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for London, my primary focus is on how Brexit will affect the capital. My report, ‘Losing it over Brexit’, finds that London is set to lose more than £500 million towards supporting its communities each year, and we can expect to see this pattern mirrored across the UK – in both cities and rural areas.
The financial support currently comes to the UK through a number of pan-European funds – some as grants, some as loans, and with most requiring an element of match funding in order to qualify. Among the largest are the European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF), which invest in job creation and creating a sustainable, healthy environment and the Horizon 2020 fund, which contributes towards driving economic development and creating jobs. Meanwhile, Erasmus Plus invests in modernising education, training and youth work, as well as providing opportunities to study and work across Europe.
This money trickles down into projects that make a real difference to people’s lives. In my constituency, for example, Love London Working is delivering basic skills training to 21,000 unemployed people with the aim of helping them into work. Paddington Development Trust is promoting urban regeneration for the public benefit in areas of social and economic deprivation. Inspiring Women is working to encourage women in London to establish and grow their own businesses. Meanwhile, RISE is supporting refugees and asylum seekers as they seek to integrate into new communities in 10 London boroughs.
These programmes – and thousands of others like them that operate across the UK – will remain open until 2020. The Chancellor has committed to honouring any EU funding agreements that were signed before the Autumn Statement 2016. After these finish, he says, the UK will continue to fund projects if they provide ‘good value for money’ and are in line with undefined ‘domestic strategic priorities’. The Chancellor has shown an interest in continuing to participate in the renowned Horizon 2020 programme, if the UK is given the opportunity to ‘buy in’. However – as we well know – at this stage, everything is still to play for.
The government has also promised to launch a ‘Shared Prosperity Fund’ in order to ‘use the structural money that comes back to the UK as a result of Brexit’ to reduce inequalities and ‘deliver sustainable, inclusive growth’. However, 19 months after the EU referendum, we’re still none the wiser as to how this might work in practice.
I’d also like to highlight that if we do indeed save much (if any) money from leaving the EU, there will be an immense web of new systems and procedures to set up and oversee. Under huge financial pressure, can we really trust this government to put any newly-available funds back into grassroots social projects? After all, it has spent the past eight years inflicting savage cuts on local authorities and damaging thousands of community initiatives in the process.
Across England, councils have seen their central government funding cut by around 40 per cent since 2010. They were forced to dip into their emergency reserves last year, withdrawing an extra £1.4 billion to fund social care projects. As a result, the Local Government Association has warned that children’s social care is at ‘breaking point’.
This is hardly the work of a government that prioritises its communities and the vulnerable people living and working within them. In fact, it’s nothing short of gross neglect.
If we hope to avoid deepening the fractures and inequalities that are already putting strain on our society, the government needs to acknowledge its responsibilities. That’s why I’m calling for concrete guarantees that the UK’s people and communities will not be harmed by Brexit – if it happens at all.